Prime Mover Of A Great City: Dallas Citizens Council

Wednesday, December 1, 2004 - 01:00

The Editor interviews Donna Halstead, President of the Dallas Citizens Council.

Editor: How did the Citizens Council come into being and who were some of the founding fathers?

Halstead: The Dallas Citizens Council came into being in the 1930s. We have been blessed over many years with a host of very caring business leaders. A small group of them got together and realized that if they pooled their resources they might be able to attract the Texas Centennial to Dallas. The mayor at the time was Bob Thornton who with Eric Johnson and Fred Florence went to Austin with the offer to the governor of $4 million and 250 acres of property near downtown Dallas in order to become the home of the Texas Centennial. As a result, Dallas acquired Fair Park which boasts the largest collection of art deco buildings in the country. Fair Park remains a major destination, housing the Cotton Bowl and several museums and entertainment venues. One of the outstanding treasures of Fair Park is the Women's Museum, dedicated to the accomplishments of women.

Editor: Would you describe the role of the Citizens Council following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy at a time when Dallas was not receiving much favorable press?

Halstead: The Citizens Council since its inception has played a critical role in the health of the community, not only its economic health but also its emotional well being. Following the assassination of President Kennedy many people were concerned about the press that we were receiving - many fearing that Dallas was being tarnished as a haven for right-wing radicals or in the case of Oswald, left-wing sympathizers, when in fact Dallas has been for many years a city that is quite diverse in its attitudes. The Citizens Council stepped forward, helping the citizens of Dallas to begin to see themselves in a light other than the venue for the assassination of the President. The business leadership took it upon themselves to send the message to other parts of the U.S. that we did have a great deal to be proud of and that we were not a city that was a haven for radical-thinking people.

Editor: Please tell us about the membership of the Citizens Council. How are the members chosen?

Halstead: From the beginning the Citizens Council was composed of a small group of Dallas business leaders. While the environment has changed dramatically over the years, it is still a fairly limited group of approximately 115 business leaders. Members are the chief executive officers of the largest corporations in the Dallas area. They are invited to join based on their organization's size. We have the CEOs of major Fortune 500 companies but also the presidents of various organizations with regional facilities in the Dallas area. We also have as members presidents of the various universities in the Dallas area - SMU, the University of Texas at Dallas, the University of North Texas, the University of Texas at Arlington, Texas Woman's University.

Editor: Perhaps you could describe some of the initiatives that the Citizens Council has undertaken recently.

Halstead: Since our inception we have made a commitment not to duplicate the work of the Chamber of Commerce because they are the best vehicle for focusing on economic development. What we have recognized over the years is that we are in a unique position to address quality of life issues which we as a community need to be proactive in if we are to have the kind of city and region we want to live in long term. To that end we are focused on a few strategic issues at any given time, limiting our focus to 5 or 6 key issues.

At the present time we are heavily involved in transportation issues, and, in fact, we are always involved in transportation issues. Dallas exists because of our transportation assets. We have to make certain that they remain viable if we are going to thrive as a region. We work on issues important to DFW airport, to our regional rail system, and we involve ourselves in various efforts to improve our highway system. We are active in a variety of ways by being strong advocates at the state and federal level on issues that are vital to the ongoing development of our transportation system.

We also have on an ongoing basis a strong involvement in public education. We know without question that is the source of our work force long term. We need to make certain that we as a business community do all that we can to improve our public schools and make certain the students get a quality education.

Editor: What indicia do you look for in measuring your contributions to the public schools?

Halstead: We are not in a position to impact what happens in the classroom, but we are in a position to make certain the leadership of the schools is as strong as it can possibly be. Our members played a key role in attracting Dr. Mike Moses to the Dallas School District about four years ago. We saw a substantial improvement in academic performance across the district during his tenure. We also encourage candidates to run for the school board who are committed to making the difficult decisions that need to be made in order to move the school district forward. We are also often involved in referenda at the school district level. A year and a half ago we supported with significant dollars a campaign to issue bonds to improve the schools. A vast majority of the campaign was funded by members of the Citizens Council; the bond issue was approved with a hefty majority of the voters, the largest bond package in the history of the state of Texas. The bonds will be repaid with property tax receipts.

Editor: Tell us something of the leadership within the Council.

Halstead: While we have had leadership from across the community, the most effective leaders are those who come to their positions committed to dealing with specific needed improvements. Many times our CEOs have a particular area they are actively involved in which they bring to the Citizens Council and promote to our membership. For instance, we have an early childhood initiative which was championed by one of our members. That effort has caused about a dozen of our senior leaders to combine efforts to expand by 100% the number of children in Dallas who have access to quality preschool programs.

Editor: Are city government officials included among your membership?

Halstead: We do work with numerous local, state and federal elected officials, depending on the issues we are dealing with, but we do not have elected officials as members of the organization. It is a hard and fast rule that membership is limited to the private sector.

Editor: In terms of your structure, do you have committees on which the members serve? How do 100 people operate as a body?

Halstead: We are a very informal organization. We discovered many years ago that most of our members are too busy to be involved with standing committees. Instead, we have developed a series of ad hoc efforts. Committees, as such, will be developed from time to time as we address specific issues. We also have as a critical piece of the organization an Issues Analysis Committee which is focused on researching and bringing to the organization as a whole key issues for us to discuss. We determine as a group whether we need to take on those particular challenges, and if so, how we intend to do it.

Right now we are heavily involved in an effort to refocus our energies on an issue regarding the funding of public schools in Texas. We have a process for funding our public schools which has been ruled by the courts to be not only inequitable but also unconstitutional. Leaders in the Citizens Council have been very active on a state-wide basis, trying to develop consensus on a new way to fund Texas public schools. The system we currently have in effect is known as the "Robin Hood" system of school funding, that is, any district in the state that is deemed to be wealthy in terms of its ad valorem tax base will have its tax revenues redistributed to other districts in the state as the state sees fit. The state has continually reduced its support for the public schools with the result being that individual communities have had to increase their property tax rates so much that the courts determined that for all practical purposes Texas has a state-wide property tax which our constitution prohibits.

Editor: Why is Dallas such an attractive city in which to live and work?

Halstead: The first and foremost trait that fosters the kind of energy and excitement that we have in Dallas is the fact that we are a very friendly city - our citizens talk with each other wherever they congregate. We even talk with strangers on the streets and in grocery stores. People who move to Dallas are struck by that kind of energy - and it's contagious. When newcomers move to Dallas, we let them know that we want them involved in the community and ask them what they can bring to the community to make it a better place.

Editor: Is there anything resembling the Citizens Council in any other large city in our country?

Halstead: Probably the organization most similar to our Citizens Council is the Commercial Club of Chicago. Its membership is even more limited than ours. Most of the other organizations similar to ours have some government component, a significant difference.

Please email the interviewee at ewhitaker@bracepatt.com with questions about this interview.